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Civil rights champion Grethe Cammermeyer inducted into Nursing Hall of Fame
Alongside letters from former United States presidents, honorary certificates from several universities and movie posters depicting her life’s work, Langley resident Grethe Cammermeyer is adding yet another honor to the wall in her home office.
Cammermeyer was inducted into the Washington State Nurses Association Hall of Fame on Thursday, March 20 at a ceremony in Seattle.
The honor is awarded to nurses who have achieved significant lifetime accomplishments in nursing.
For Cammermeyer, that includes 50 years of nursing, 30 years of service in the military as an army nurse, and 20 years of civil rights advocacy.
“I was stunned, it was totally unexpected,” said Cammermeyer, recounting her feelings of surprise when she got the news.
“Sometimes, when you’re out of the realm of influence, to suddenly have this appear, you wonder ‘how did this happen?’ You always end up wondering if you’re worthy of this recognition and what can you do to continue,” she said.
Cammermeyer, who is also a Whidbey General Hospital commissioner, was honored for her civil rights advocacy and her contributions to nursing. She was one of six nurses who received the award this year.
During her service, Cammermeyer had a distinguished military career including receiving a Bronze Star for Meritorious Service during Army duty in Vietnam, Nurse of the Year in 1985 from the Department of Veterans Affairs, an Administrator’s Award for Excellence in Nursing for her work in neuro-oncology at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Francisco and was promoted to be Chief Nurse of the Washington State National Guard in 1988.
Yet, despite her many decorations and achievements, Cammermeyer told interviewers during a security clearance check in 1989 that she is a lesbian, and was discharged in 1992 as military policy did not allow gays and lesbians to serve openly.
Cammermeyer fought to be reinstated, and a federal court found the ban on gays and lesbians in service to be unconstitutional. She was reinstated in 1994.
During her efforts to return to duty, Cammermeyer found early support with the state nurses association. The organization wrote a letter of support for Cammermeyer’s case and encouraged her to continue the fight from the very beginning, she said.
“They were very concerned about social justice and were there for me in ’91,” she explained.
She said she was honored to have the recognition from her hometown area.
“To have my organization recognize that effort by inducting me is extremely moving,” she added.
Chief Nursing Officer at Whidbey General Hospital Linda Gipson said Cammermeyer is a legacy in nursing.
“She’s not just a great military officer or commissioner — she’s a great nurse. That’s the foundation for what she does,” Gipson said.
Gipson said Cammermeyer sets the standard for what’s right and speaks for people whether they’re patients, nurses or people in same-sex relationships.
“Very few people have the courage to speak up and risk their job security, income or reputation to do what’s right,” Gipson said. “When you do the right thing, good will come from it even though it may be hard — the long-term benefit will be there. That courage is needed in daily life.”
After a 20-year effort working in political and social issues, Cammermeyer said part of her work now is to capture that experience. Since the beginning of her fight, she said society has largely moved past issues of homophobia on the surface.
“In today’s society, people as a whole are much more enlightened to the variety of people that exist,” she said.
However people still learn biases which are hard to overcome, she said.
“It’s so easy to forget,” Cammermeyer added.
Cammermeyer hopes her work encourages people to stand up and do that right thing, which may come at a personal cost.
“Live truthfully and provide examples for others to do the same,” she said.